ARLINGTON, Tex. -- It towers over the Metroplex landscape like a spaceship, visible from miles away, drawing the eyes of fliers peering out the windows of airplanes high above.
It is football’s present and future, a billion-dollar coliseum surrounded by a wide-open suburban landscape, flanked by an enormous Wal-Mart across the parking lot and a Six Flags theme park down the street. It is a monument to excess, to extravagance, to power, to the almighty football dollar.
The Cotton Bowl Classic is regaining its prestige, and it calls Cowboys Stadium home. Johnny Manziel will fit in well here.
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It sits just east of center city Dallas, plopped in the middle of Fair Park, site of the State Fair of Texas, 20 miles east down the Tom Landry Highway from Cowboys Stadium. On a chilly, overcast January afternoon, 24 hours after the Heart of Dallas Bowl -- an Oklahoma State blowout of Purdue -- it shows its age, looking like an eerie relic of a bygone era, one of the wishbone or the single wing, coaches wearing ties and fedoras.
Landry coached here for a decade, before the Dallas Cowboys moved to Irving and became the Dallas Cowboys as we know them. SMU played here for a while, and even the World Cup passed through in 1994. It still annually hosts Texas and Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry.
But for the fourth year, the Cotton Bowl won’t host the Cotton Bowl. Still, Johnny Manziel would have fit in well here.
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You might think Texas A&M and Oklahoma would have a colorful history together, but they don’t. While Texas A&M bolted Oklahoma’s Big 12 for the SEC, they had been conference partners only since 1996, after the Southwest Conference collapsed and the Big 8 became the Big 12. They played a series spanning much of the Truman administration, then didn’t meet again until 1993.
They played in Dallas once. It was 1909, 21 years before the Cotton Bowl stadium opened. Texas A&M beat Oklahoma 14-6 on a Wednesday in November, part of a stretch of three games in a week for the Sooners. Johnny Manziel would have fit in well there.
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You saw him play. He dazzled all year, the unknown stepping into a starting role and, soon after, superstardom.
If any player bridges the gap between 1909, the Truman years and now, between the Cotton Bowl’s glory days on New Year’s mornings at Cotton Bowl Stadium and the current iteration at night on Jan. 4 in Jerry Jones’ spaceship, it’s Johnny Manziel, the Cotton Bowl quarterback for any age.
No football player transcends eras quite like Johnny Football. He’d fit perfectly into an option system of those early Cotton Bowl years. He fits perfectly in a modern Air Raid attack, expertly operating Kevin Sumlin’s prolific passing scheme while adding a knack for improvisation unheard of among 99 percent of quarterbacks. He defies labels. Not only does he quarterback the SEC’s No. 1 passing offense, he also personally leads the conference in rushing.
A running joke all season has been Texas A&M’s ability to adapt to big-boy football in the SEC West, to the physical play of Alabama and LSU and what’s been the best division in college football, after several mediocre years in the wide-open Big 12 playing second fiddle to Texas and Oklahoma. How would the Aggies compete in a real conference? That was the popular refrain of SEC media days in Hoover, Ala., back in July.
Obviously, it didn’t talk long for the Aggies and Manziel to take the league by storm, to fight the SEC establishment.
“I don’t think you stop him,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops told reporters earlier this week. “I think you try to contain him and try to limit his big plays. Being able to keep him in the pocket is easier said than done. They do a great job creating run plays for him to get him into open space. People don’t realize, but the offensive line does a great job of creating space for him.”
And so the throwback quarterback baffles opposing coaches, doubling as a quarterback who helped usher college football into the future by winning the Heisman Trophy as a freshman. Johnny Manziel fits in well in 2013.
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The Cotton Bowl Classic has fought hard against irrelevance, against its exclusion from the BCS, against its old, decaying stadium. It bucked tradition and moved into an unopposed prime-time slot halfway between New Year’s Day and the national championship game. It moved into a new NFL stadium.
It will soon likely be part of the new playoff system, and on Friday night, it welcomes its first Heisman winner since 1999, when Ricky Williams ran wild for Texas against Mississippi State.
For now, it’s just a bowl game, one with no national championship implications, nothing on the line except bragging rights. Like 33 other bowl games, it means nothing in one sense as an exhibition, but everything in another sense as a football game played in front of 90,000 people on national television.
“I try to explain it more and more that football is a game of fun,” Manziel said. “We are so blessed to be able to play this game and come out here and play. It’s a game, and that is all it is. If you enjoy playing it, you might as well make the most of it. It is nothing but fun. It is fun to run around and throw the ball around with some of your best friends.”
Perhaps Oklahoma wishes it were that simple, wishes the pressure would be off as it tries to do what even Alabama’s defense couldn’t: contain Johnny Manziel.
“It is like that old saying, you come in there with a game plan and to the fight thinking you are going to do this,” Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore said. “But once you get hit in the nose, all that goes out the window. I think that applies to Johnny a lot. You go in saying you are going to do this and you have the perfect scheme, but he always seems to do something amazing to change your whole thought process.”
He’ll play backyard football with his friends, like the old days, while also helping to move the Cotton Bowl Classic and SEC football further into the 21st century, a time of Air Raids, Wal-Marts and steel roller coasters instead of wishbones, corner stores and Ferris wheels.
You pick the time, Johnny Manziel will probably win.